Leading by Example: Where are the Female Leaders in Education?

Mon 04 May 2020

Leading by Example: Where are the Female Leaders in Education?

In the absence of gender equality at senior level, what norms is our education system subliminally supporting? 

Across the education sector, from primary and secondary schools to colleges and universities, three key issues of pay, promotion and representation are intertwined, with the result that the gender pay gap is dismayingly high and women are not making senior leadership positions in adequate numbers.  

In schools, the teaching profession is overwhelmingly female, and yet male teachers are almost twice as likely to hold leadership positions as their female colleagues. 63% of teaching staff in secondary schools are female, compared with only 38% of headteachers. At primary school level, men are present at senior level at a ratio of almost 2:1 of their representation overall – whilst just 14% of teaching staff are male, 27% of headteachers are.  

At first glance, the figures for further and higher education are more encouraging; across the UK, 40% of governing body members are women and 55% of governing bodies are gender-balanced (with between 40%– 60% women). Furthermore, 27% of governing bodies are chaired by a woman and 29% of HEIs have a woman Vice-Chancellor or Principal.  

Mind the gap

However, the gender pay gap across education is stark and reveals worrisome trends beneath the surface statistics. In 2019, more than nine out of ten institutions paid their average male employee more than they paid their average female employee, with British universities reporting an average median pay gap of 13.7% -- 4.6 percentage points higher than the national average of 9.1% in 2018. Furthermore, research by WomenCount found that, in 2018, 75% of all female Vice-Chancellors were from HEIs in the bottom two income quartiles, with further implications for the gender pay gap. Barriers to women’s progression into leadership begin at the level of professorship; the BBC reported in 2016 that in the UK, only one in four professors were female, despite half of lecturers being women, whilst Times Higher Education data from 2017, cited by WomenCount, revealed that the numbers of female professors was decreasing rather than increasing in 30% of universities.  

The pay gap existent within schools is equally disheartening.  On average, across all state funded schools including academies, female teachers earn £2,900 less than their male counterparts (£37,700 compared to £40,660). This gap widens for teachers in leadership positions and over time as careers progress. Female head teachers earn on average £5,700 less than male head teachers overall. However, at a granular level, women head teachers aged under 40 earn £5,400 less than their male colleagues, rising to £11,300 for those in their 50s and to £13,500 for female head teachers aged 60 or over. 

Obstacles to advancement

Maternity care and related bias are a key contributing factors to this disparity in schools. Since career breaks and part-time work are undertaken by women more often than men, the National Education Union argues that PRP has had an adverse impact on the pay and progression of female teachers. A 2017 member survey found that a third of teachers eligible for pay progression who had been absent because of maternity leave during the 2016-17 school year did not receive it, with 61% of that group having been informed that this time off was the reason for that decision. Furthermore, whilst 61% of full-time teaching staff received pay progression that year, only 47% of eligible (predominantly) part time teachers did so. To rectify this imbalance, the NEU urge that promotion procedures and processes are re-examined, to ensure that career breaks and part-time work do not have an adverse impact on the career and salary progression of female staff.  

For women in higher education, similar structural barriers present themselves. Commenting to the BBC, Professor Paul Boyle, vice chancellor of Leicester University and one of the UN’s 10 "impact champions", remarked that, "At the moment we're not judging the CVs and the backgrounds of people fairly, we're not taking into account that women are more likely to have had breaks in their career”. Promotion criteria often focusses on quantity of academic papers and research grants rather than quality -- a tradition which Boyle is working to offset. Research by WomenCount complements his assertion; they too found that promotion criteria is often too narrow. A higher percentage of women than men have teaching-only contracts, whilst grants or prizes won, and books and papers published, are more highly valued in promotion processes than success in teaching, outreach and departmental support. A more holistic set of criteria would enable a broader array of candidates to be considered. Targets and reporting for female professors as well as women on boards are other important measures recommended by WomenCount and UN Women alike.  

Confidence and the ability to surmount bias and adversity are also identified as vital attributes which must be supported and developed in women, in order for gender imbalance in senior leadership in education is to be rectified sooner rather than later. According to Brian Cosby, CEO of the Hope Learning Trust in York, in his experience, "male colleagues will often apply for something they are not ready for, whereas female colleagues need to be sure they can carry out the role”. Furthermore, Dr Kay Fuller, associate professor of educational leadership at Nottingham University who has written a report on equality in school leadership, has emphasised that “women's careers are interrupted and disrupted disproportionately to men's”. Women should therefore be enabled to negotiate "complex and interacting factors that create barriers to their career advancement". Such assertions complement the understanding held by Dame Athene Donald of the University of Cambridge, who believes that "subtle blend of cultural expectations” -- including bias, not aiming high enough and a lack of supportive mentors -- hold women back. 

Leading by example

Education is often identified as having the potential to act as a social leveler, by providing equality of opportunity. However, as the findings outlined above demonstrate, this is evidently not the case for women working in education – which is concerning, given the opening question of ‘what norms our education system is subliminally supporting, in the absence of gender equality at senior level’. Cultural and structural barriers are preventing women from achieving their full potential, with negative implications for individuals, the sector, and society as a whole; if a significant pool of talent is hampered in offering its best, there will be implications for the quality of education and research overall. Many of the obstacles are clear, however -- as are the solutions. It is therefore time that education begins leading by example.  


Women in Education will take place on Tuesday, October 20th 2020 in Central London.  

This conference will provide attendees with practical advice and coaching on how to develop their careers, from perspectives such as addressing the cultural and practical obstacles to leadership, developing and retaining a growth mindset in the face of challenge or adversity, dispelling impostor syndrome, increasing your visibility and rising to challenges and authentic leadership.  



Amery, Fran et al, 'WHY DO UK UNIVERSITIES HAVE SUCH LARGE GENDER PAY GAPS?', (25 April 2019). Political Studies Association. https://www.psa.ac.uk/psa/news/why-do-uk-universities-have-such-large-gender-pay-gaps

BBC, 'Female heads 'under-represented in secondary schools', says study', (7 April 2017). BBC News. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-39502068

Coughlan, Sean, 'Are universities secretly sexist?', (21 September 2016). BBC News. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-37407540

National Education Union, 'Gender Pay Gap, (20 December 2018). https://neu.org.uk/policy/gender-pay-gap

Norma Jarboe OBE, 'WomenCount Leaders in Higher Education 2018', (November 2018). WomenCount. https://womencountblog.files.wordpress.com/2018/11/womencount-report-2018_web-version_new-final.pdf

Oxford Open Learning, 'Gender Diversity in Schools', (3 April 2018). https://www.ool.co.uk/blog/gender-diversity-in-schools/

QA Education, 'Secondary state schools ‘excessively dominated by male headteachers’', (25 September 2018). https://www.qaeducation.co.uk/article/state-schools-male-heads

Staufenberg, Jess, 'Men get promoted more quickly, and 4 other findings from new school leadership research', (11 April 2018). Schools Week. https://schoolsweek.co.uk/men-get-promoted-more-quickly-and-4-other-findings-from-new-school-leadership-research/



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